Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A few days ago I finished Rocketeers by Michael Belfiore.

Subtitled "How a Visionary Band of Business Leaders, Engineers, and Pilots Is Boldly Privatizing Space", Rocketeers is a chronicle of the first few years of a new industry, sometimes referred to as NewSpace or Alt.Space, that is trying to revolutionize access to space through entrepreneurial means rather than government action.

Belfiore interviewed a number of the most important people in this new field, including people at Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites, Bigelow Aerospace, RocketPlane Kistler and SpaceX. He does a good job of covering the people he interviews, but a little more information on some of the other companies would have been interesting.

There are two flaws in this book. The first is that it is very early in the development of this industry and therefore the real prospects of these companies are far from certain. In particular, the last year has seen a lot of setbacks, from the explosion at Scaled Composite's test site that killed three employees, to Rocketplane Kistler losing their NASA COTS funding and there being no winner of the Lunar Lander challenge at the X prize cup after two years with only one competitor - Armadillo Aerospace. The second is that Belfiore falls into common cliche in non-fiction books - he injects himself into the story. For example,
his reaction to finding about the Apollo moon landings in the start of the book is neither germane to the story, nor interesting, to read about. Similarly, his reaction to the Doom computer game in the small section on John Carmack and Armadillo Aerospace is just a distraction.

Last night we went to an Ask A Scientist event at the Axis Cafe in San Francisco. The Ask A Scientist lectures are the SF version of what have come to be called "science cafes", where a lecture is given to the public on some scientific topic in an informal, Q&A atmosphere. The topic last night was ancient science and the lecture was given by Richard Carrier, who is just about to complete a Ph.D with a related thesis.

It was a very interesting and entertaining lecture. The lecturer was obviously an expert in the field and there were a number of good questions from the audience. It was also good that he started off with a brief discourse on what seperates ancient science from modern science.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Yesterday morning I finished The Hallowed Hunt by Lois McMaster Bujold - a stand alone fantasy novel set in the same world as The Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls.

I've read The Curse of Chalion but not Paladin of Souls, though it is on my shelf right now. Chalion is quite a good book, and Paladin won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards so it is probably good as well. The Hallowed Hunt is a good book but I didn't like it as much as Chalion and it didn't seem good enough to win any awards. Bujold has a good handle on writing interesting characters and she has created a unique world with a religion that stands out as more interesting than most fantasy books. She also deserves praise for avoiding the trap of writing endless series of books. All three of these books are set in the same world but stand alone without any cliffhangers at the end.

Last night we saw the Punch Brothers, Chris Thile's post-modern bluegrass band (formerly known as the Tension Mountain Boys and How To Grow A Band) at the Independent in San Francisco.

We saw the same band almost exactly a year ago at the same club. I wrote about it here. Last night's performance was also an amazing show by some of the best pickers alive today, but I enjoyed it less than last year. A large portion of the show was devoted to what Thile describes as a string quintette for bluegrass instruments, "The Blind Leading the Blind". It's an interesting, ambitious piece and particularly praiseworthy in our current anti-intellectual, anti-art pop culture but it serves as more of a showcase of Thile's composing talents. Thile is probably the best mandolin player of all time and has an amazing creativity in his improvisations, as well as an amazing ability to improvise at extreme high speed. That is what I really like to see from his live shows and it was mostly lacking last night.

It was still a great show but hopefully after this tour, his live show will feature more of his hot picking and improvising.